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At Fringe Festival, a Finely Tuned Fury

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 14, 2008

The art of the one-person show is in disguising a self-centered act as something generous: The performer must convince us utterly that he's in it more for our pleasure than his own. The beguiling monologuist Mike Daisey achieves this in grand style with his new solo piece about the withering of American idealism in the Age of Terror, "If You See Something, Say Something."

As one of the opening acts of this summer's Capital Fringe Festival -- the third installment of Washington's annual theatrical midway of the weird, the profound, the silly and, sometimes, the ghastly -- Daisey gets things off to a funny, provocative, meticulously embroidered start. His show is, at two hours, a bit long for the Fringe and at $20 per seat, five bucks pricier than virtually all other festival offerings. (It's at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, rather than at one of 11 official Fringe venues, which range from the Warehouse off Mount Vernon Square to Chief Ike's Mambo Room in Adams Morgan.)

Still, what this master story-spinner produces is pure value, in streams of finely etched argument. Seated at a table, with a dark cloth to wipe his brow, a stack of handwritten sheets from a legal pad and a glass of water from which he never takes a sip, Daisey guides us through a tale of paranoia, politics and paradox. It's the story of a decades-long national obsession with feeling safe that culminates in the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, which he describes as "the largest expansion of federal power in 60 years."

The touchstone for this detailed, episodic, even poetic excursion is the 35-ish Daisey's own childhood fascination with the atomic bomb, a preoccupation that leads him to Los Alamos, N.M., and a pilgrimage to the site of the first bomb test, which occurred on July 16, 1945, on a remote military base. Once a year, he tells us, the installation's gates are opened and the public is invited to drive in to view Ground Zero -- an event that gives Daisey material for dark, humorous and intense musings about the peculiar culture of a locality he labels "the deadliest place on Earth."

You get to know a person surprisingly well over the course of 120 minutes. Your antennae probe the ether for fakery, for indications of someone who just likes to hear himself talk. Daisey, though, exudes authenticity. His voice is easy to listen to, and the intermittent, acid-tipped expressions of indignation -- over the absurdity of some of the government's responses to terrorism, at the chinks being widened in our national character -- rise with a crusader's sense of injustice.

"I'm a subversive person. I'm a bad person. I am a person of interest," Daisey declares, and on this last point, certainly, no one is going to contradict him.

Daisey's monologue came for me at the end of a whirlwind tour over two days at the start of the Fringe, which this summer is to run a record 17 days. Geographically, the festival covers a lot more of the city than it did in previous summers, which is murder on the heels and makes it harder to puddle-jump from show to show.

Since most offerings run 60 minutes or even less, however, I managed to get to seven of the eight productions I'd booked. A couple of them need work: "City Folk," staged at Universalist National Memorial Church and billed as an improvised live sitcom, simply falls apart from incoherence. At the Cole Studio on 15th Street NW, Joey Maranto's "Good Enough for Government Work" has a very promising premise: Maranto is a federal auditor whose stand-up is all about the inanity of life in a bureaucracy. But at this point he relies too much on quips about employee hygiene and other types of tacky bathroom humor to sustain the hour.

A troupe from Walla Walla, Wash., called Formerly Witty Productions has more success with "On the Sly," a genial modern adaptation at the Warehouse of "The Taming of the Shrew." You're not likely to think the actors have arrived from anywhere but their college dorms. Yet they radiate the pleasurable aura of let's-put-on-a-show that's so right for Fringe.

Apt for the Fringe, too, is Suzanne Falter-Barns, a.k.a. Dr. Serenity Hawkfire, whose "Beyond Being Workshop," also at Cole Studio, is a witty descent into the neurotic psyche of a guitar-strumming New Age guru who's far better at acting out than tuning in. Over the course of 60 interactive minutes, we're consoled to discover that our troubles don't hold a candle to the baggage in Dr. Serenity's life, though my favorite moment was an inside-theater joke involving a third-rate "Chicago" revival that gave the guru divine inspiration.

Two other polished solo performers, both appearing at the Goethe-Institut on Seventh Street NW, deserve bright follow spots. In the sprightly "Mothers of Invention," Laura Poe expertly portrays all the women (on screen as well as onstage) in a tale set in a near future of corporate greed and genetically manipulated snack foods. (Her best character may be the deeply phobic Martha Stewart-wannabe who counsels that the only way to guarantee the safety of vegetables is to grow them in a solarium you carry on your back.)

Sharing the Goethe space is the terrific Mark Whitney, who is back at the Fringe with "Fool for a Client," a new version of a one-man show from last summer, "Bad Dad." In "Fool," he turns an account of his legal and financial troubles with the government (resulting in a stint in federal prison) into a funny and moving -- and, yes, of course, one-sided -- testimonial to a special American brand of iconoclasm.

Whitney is still working out some of the kinks in the piece; the awkward recorded music cues need to be rethought, for instance. But in other ways, rawness is an essential part of his performance. The show is sharpest when Whitney's anger is infusing his observational humor -- much the same way that fury wells up in Daisey as he issues his own harsh verdict on the government in "If You See Something, Say Something." It goes to show that to do well at Fringe, perhaps you have to be a little mad.

Capital Fringe Festival, through July 27 at various sites across the city. For tickets, go to the Capital Fringe box office, 607 New York Ave. NW, or visit http://www.capfringe.org. Tickets can also be purchased at the door of a given show one hour before showtime.

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